An inconvenient truth: Adapt or perish

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

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An inconvenient truth: Adapt or perish

Barun Barpujari | July 06, 2019 16:46 hrs

The author offers a chilling scenario that awaits humanity at large should it fail to address the impending water shortage that is set to hit the world sooner than later.

It is reported that India receives about 4000 billion cubic meters (bcm) of rainfall annually. Unfortunately, it is not evenly distributed across the year nor is the precipitation uniformly received across the country. While Meghalaya receives about 11,400 mm of rainfall annually, the western belt receives about 310 mm. Moreover, 85% of the rainfall is received across 4-5 months. It is reported that of the 4000 bcm of rainfall received annually, only about 1100 bcm is utilized viz. about 25 percent only and the rest is lost as surface run-off. A colossal loss indeed! Hence, unless action is taken to develop adequate storage capacity, a large portion of the rain water will always be lost as surface run-off into the sea and large parts of the country will continue to remain water-stressed. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the order of the day with existing wetlands being encroached upon and ponds being filled up for construction purposes.

The average per capita availability of water has been progressively falling,

  • Year 1901 it was 2309 cubic metres (cum)

  • Year 2010 it dropped to 1700 cum – considered stressed-level

  • Year 2050 it is projected at 1140 cum under the business as usual scenario (estimated) – uncomfortably close to the scarcity level of 1000 cum!

It is, however, reported that by 2020, India is likely to be categorized as a “water-stressed” country. The choice is ours – adapt or perish!

We are gradually witnessing the impact of climate change – rising temperatures, short bursts of intense rainfall resulting in floods occurring in places unheard of earlier like Rajasthan, Gujarat etc. This is followed by long periods of dry spells resulting in droughts. Increased incidences of storms, cyclones and hurricanes are also becoming the order of the day. Such phenomenon is expected to become progressively more intense and frequent.

The Economic Survey 2018 had recognized that climate change with increasing ambient temperature is adversely impacting agricultural production. It has called for increased focus and spends on creation of water storage capacity and irrigation facilities to climate proof agriculture, especially through micro-irrigation projects. Thankfully, this had been recognized and factored in the Union Budget 2018. However, how much has been achieved on the ground is debatable!

Modi Government 2.0, through constitution of the new Jal Shakti ministry, seems to be serious about tackling the water issue and on delivering on Pradhan Mantri’s poll promise of “Nal se Jal” for every household by 2024. Poor quality of drinking water is the root cause of behind many stomach and other ailments resulting in loss of productivity. On a more serious side, arsenic and fluoride contaminated drinking water is also causing distress to a progressively greater section of the populace. Hence the quality aspect of drinking water is equally important as is its availability.

Assam and the other northeastern states of the country are fortunate to receive a fairly good distribution of rainfall. Water availability from rainfall is supplemented by a large number of rivers and rivulets. However, the scepter of climate change is already upon us. India, including the northeastern region, is predicted to be among the worst affected. Already, reports are received of several areas in Assam facing drought like situation while other parts of the state reel under floods each year. Farmers often complain of non-availability of water for growing the Rabi crop during the long dry months. We can ignore the impact of climate change only at our own peril. We therefore need to work on our climate change adaptation strategy or perish!

Assam’s largely agrarian economy needs to be climate proofed to secure its future. The government’s Planning & Development Department needs to get the Agriculture Department, the Irrigation Department and the Water/Soil Conservation Department to sit together and draw up a master plan for creating rain water storage capacities and micro-irrigation facilities linked to water sources. Areas away from rivers and perennial streams that have potential for a second/third crop but stressed for water during the dry season may be identified to create irrigation facilities and linked to perennial water sources. The overarching objective would have to be to make Assam the food basket of the northeast region and even beyond while climate proofing the agriculture sector. Gram panchayats and farmers are to be made stakeholders and need to participate in the endeavor and its success. As the adage goes – what is given free has little or no value! As things are panning out, we can ourselves see how true this is!

These water storage ponds may also be provided with floating solar panels that would provide power to irrigate fields and also supply to neighboring villages. This expedient would also help reduce loss of water from the ponds through evaporation. The cost of installing floating solar power installations is dropping fairly rapidly and very soon is expected to fall below that of land based solar power installations. In November last, Shapoorji Pallonji Group bagged a 50 megawatts in the floating solar auction on the Rihand reservoir in Uttar Pradesh by the state-run Solar Energy Corp of India at a tariff of Rs 3.29 per unit.

These efforts, coupled with time bound implementation of approved projects would need to be monitored very closely. This would be essential considering the normally poor record on quality of execution and adhering to timelines on implementation of projects. It is astounding to see the pathetic manner that the rain water harvesting projects have been implemented in various schools by the government. The tanks assigned to receive the channeled roof top rain water do not have any outlet holes/water withdrawal facility! Large number of dry,  incomplete minor  irrigation canals with no linkage to perennial sources of water to cater to the requirements of water of agriculture fields during the dry season bear testimony to the poor planning and execution of schemes in which money has been spent but outcomes nowhere near the stated objectives. These are just examples to emphasize the need for close monitoring to ensure proper planning, design and implementation and the need for creating a system of holding departments/individual accountable.

The other aspect that is of equal importance is proper operations and maintenance of facilities. Sights of decrepit, abandoned government installations abound across the state, begging the question as to who is accountable for this pathetic state of affairs. After all, the tax payers’ hard earned money is involved.

Guwahati city is already getting a flavor of climate change and its manifestations of increasing temperature profile, an almost non-existent winter season during the past few years and bouts of very intense rainfall during the monsoon months with resultant flooding in parts of the city. With dwindling water bodies, growing concretization and increased water extraction for consumption, the water table is falling in large parts of the city leading to failure of bore wells. Consequently, people have to resort to buying water to quench their thirst. Three/four wheelers ferrying and supplying water has become a common sight in the city. However, there are complaints against the quality of water being supplied. While completion of the water supply network projects need to be expedited, it is also important to explore the possibility of recharging the aquifers to improve the underground water levels in the city for ensuring water security.

With increased concreting and paving, the surface area available for water to seep into the earth is shrinking. This is bound to happen. Guwahati city is, however, blessed with hills within its limits and also flanking it. These hills provide an opportunity for our climate change adaptation strategy. We need to preserve the hills in their pristine condition and prevent further human encroachment and occupation. The rain water precipitation on these hills could be largely arrested from flowing down through certain proven strategies/actions and thereby facilitate the water to permeate in to the soil and re-charge the aquifer. While the water table would thus be raised, the collateral benefit of this expedient would be the partial mitigation of the flooding of the city following heavy showers. Sikkim has been able to rejuvenate is springs (source of its drinking water) and its lakes through such an expedient. Assam could learn and benefit from the experience of its neighbour.

As the monsoon season fades away, the hills present a truly sorry picture. With the withering away of the dense undergrowth during the long dry season, what becomes flagrantly evident is that very few trees still adorn these hills. Through the expedient mentioned above, the moisture retention capacity of the soil will improve and if a tree plantation drive is undertaken, the survival rate of the saplings would improve. The benefits of increased tree coverage are, of course, widely known and cannot be over emphasized.

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